There's one aspect of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim that separates it from every other blockbuster movie released this summer: Love. (OK, there's a lot more than one aspect - but love is the main one.) Guillermo loves these characters. He loves these monsters. He loves this world. It's imbued in every frame. He loves the world that he's built as much as Ishiro Honda ("Godzilla") loved his; he loves it as much as Ray Harryhausen ("Jason & the Argonauts") loved his. And I love him for it.
The year is 2025, and we're twelve years deep into the "Kaiju War." (To people familiar with Japanese cinema, kaiju refers to the men-in-giant-robber-monster-suits-rampaging-over-miniature-cities genre of filmmaking. To everyone else, it's a term they'll learn as the film opens.) The kaijus - "giant beasts," to be exact, humongous Godzilla-type monsters who rampage over cities leaving thousands dead in their wake - have begun to emerge from a space-time continuum breach in the rim of the Pacific Ocean, and mankind has devised but a single successful solution to stopping them: Giant cyborgs, called jaegers.
Two human pilots are needed to operate them, psychically, simultaneously. Those humans are forced to mind-meld - it's called "drifting" - which means that they must connect at the cerebral cortex, they must see past any conflicts, they must accept every aspect of one another, they must literally become one. Yes, it's "Mechs vs. Godzillas," complete with a psychological-philosophical bent. In other words, it's a living, breathing, and live-action anime film.
Charlie Hunnam features as Raleigh Becket, a jaeger pilot who lost his brother - his drifting partner - in a battle with a kaiju years ago. Raleigh's drafted back into the service by Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba, sporting the best character name this side of a Spike Lee movie,) who matches him up with Mako Mori. Mako, now a young woman, also lost her family at a young age to a kaiju attack. There's a number of other characters floating about - Charlie Day plays a kaiju-obsessed scientist, Ron Perlman shows up as a black market dealer - but I won't get bogged down retelling their stories, because the most fascinating part of "Pacific Rim" is the world that Del Toro has constructed around them.
He and co-writer Travis Beachman have clearly spent years sketching out the universe that "Pacific Rim" takes place in; every character has a lifetime of hinted-at backstory, and each of the mechs is scarred by years of damage incurred in unseen battles. By the time the film catches up with its own setup - the title card doesn't show up for almost 25 minutes - you realize that the exposition is just texture. And so is the world building, too - all the brand names, all the mech designations, and all the kaiju categories (everything belongs to a different classification in this movie) -- it all serves a purpose, but it's not the purpose.
The purpose is the motion, it's in the movement, it's the action. The majority of the film takes place in Hong Kong, which has been designated as the "final battle station" between giant robots and giant monsters, because it's Hong Kong, so of course it was designated as the final battle station for a fight between giant robots and giant monsters. Raleigh and Mako and Stacker and the rest of their rag-tag crew only have four jaegers left, and they're ready to put up a last stand against the kaiju.
These battle scenes are the result of someone caring about their film, about their story, and about their images so much that they don't care how silly it might come off. The jaegers bound and clank at a slow pace, del Toro holding his shots long enough for us to appreciate their weight and giant size. The kaijus, also, are transcendent forces of nature, emitting fluorescent blue lights that only amp up the film's druggy, neon energy. Watching the two do battle, it's poetry: Yes, del Toro is obsessed with giant monster movies, but there's also a fair bit of Jean Cocteau and "Beauty & the Beast" here. He wants us to appreciate the beauty in the motion; he wants to find the transcendent feeling that we had when we were watching "King Kong" as an 8-year-old. The action is visceral, but it's also lyrically edited, and masterfully composed.
"Pacific Rim" is a cheesy movie, but it's cheesy in the vein of movies that existed before 'cheesy' was a phrase; yes, it's broad and silly and over-the-top and commercial, but it knows it, and it's not going to wink or apologize for it, either. The first shot of the film is of the stars, calming hanging in the sky; the following 130 minutes feel like something a particularly creative young person would dream up while lying down in his backyard.
We could sit here, all day long, and list off the things del Toro is riffing on with his mechs-battling-monsters daydream - "Godzilla," "King Kong," the films of Harryhausen, the video games of Team Ico, "Evangelion," Goya's painting of The Collossus, anything - but it wouldn't properly articulate the joy for cinema that's left oozing on every frame, like the blue blood of a kaiju splashed across the city streets. Part of me wants to say that this is one of the great American genre films of my lifetime, but then I realize even that's a misnomer. It's directed by a Spaniard, influenced by Japanese culture, set in Hong Kong, and features a multicultural cast. This isn't just for us. "Pacific Rim" is a gift to the entire world. He should've signed the final frame: From Guillermo, with love.